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CANNES, FRANCEThe last day screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylans ruminative, challenging Once Upon a Time in Anatolia strengthened an exceptionally ambitious and coherent competition at this years Cannes Film Festivalalthough Terrence Malicks The Tree of Life won the Palme dOr, Ceylans late entry shared the second-place Prix du Jury with the Dardenne brothers The Kid With a Bike.
Cannes 2011 yielded more exceptional movies than any edition Ive attended since 2007. The festival benefited from a return to form by a number of established favorites as well as the continued vitality of Latin American cinema. I had no difficulty pulling together a list of 10 exceptional movies from the 35 that I sawand regret having to omit another half-dozen.
1. Made under house arrest by an Iranian filmmaker banned for 20 years from making films (or giving interviews) and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread, Jafar Panahis home-movie essay This Is Not a Film, put together with the help of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (and, in some sequences, a cell phone), more than lived up to its ironic title. Confined to his apartment, Panahi takes phone calls from his lawyer, explicates scenes from his earlier movies, tends to his daughters humongous pet iguana, watches stricken Japan on TV, and riffs with a young building superintendent who may or may not have been sent to report on him. All the while, New Years fireworks are exploding in the streets. As precisely tuned as it is affectingly modest, This Is Not a Film is something morea historical document and a courageous moral statement.
2. Upstaged by its creators compulsive buffoonery, Lars Von Triers Melancholia is his finest film in the eight years since Dogville. A disaster film, it features two disasters: The frenzied first half is devoted to the appalling disintegration of a storybook wedding; the startlingly calm aftermath has the bride (Kirsten Dunst), her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), and their young child waiting for the mystery planet Melancholiaa mere speck of light when the movie opensto collide with Earth. Its Ibsen as science-fiction.
4. As bang-bang as its title, Gerardo Naranjos third feature Miss Bala (Miss Bullet) is at once an example of virtuoso action filmmaking, an impassioned response to the collapse of civil order in northern Mexico, and a horrific Alice in Wonderland, in which an aspiring beauty queen becomes an unwitting pawn in the international drug trade, as well as a metaphor for her nation.
5. Cannes 2011s greatest comeback was Aki Kaurismäkis warmhearted comedy of international working-class solidarity, Le Havre, made in the French port city with a mixed Finnish-French-Senegalese cast. This utopian evocation of Europes refugee problem brilliantly expresses the directors pessimism by showing everything as it is not. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion, Theodor Adorno wrote of Kafkas Americaa book pointedly cited in the movie.
6. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne do what only they can with The Kid With a Bike, a gritty, stripped-down action meditation on redemption and grace, in which a pinch-faced throwaway kidsingle-minded, unlovable, their most remarkable protagonist since Rosettastruggles to find his place in the world.
7. Footnote, Joseph Cedars Talmudic tale of Talmud scholars, father and son, competing for the Israel Prize, is another sort of parablea Kafka story that could have been played out in 18th-century Vilna or 1930s Hollywood. If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of Jewish religion, this profoundly ironic, dryly absurdist burlesque is the most Jewish movie Ive ever seen in Cannes. Fittingly, it won the prize for best screenplay.
8. Closely adapted from Alejandro Zambras 2006 cult novella, Chilean director Cristián Jiménezs Bonsái (shown, like Miss Bala, in the fests Un Certain Regard section), is the essence of cosmopolitan provincialisma superbly grounded, meta-literary tragicomedy of student-boho life. Deadpan exchanges, shabby locations, and a lively indie-rock score by the Franco-Chilean band Pánico accentuate the poignancy of Santiagos distance from Paris: Life Is Elsewhere (but cinema is not).
9. Shown as part of the International Critics Week, Pablo Giorgellis Las Acasias is a quiet tour de force. Like more than a few young Argentine films, this minimalist road movie is shot situation-documentary-style. The camera rides with a taciturn truck driver as he hauls a load of timberand a woman with her infant childfrom Paraguay to Buenos Aires. Its part pilgrimage, part love story (or the idea of one) and the deserved winner of the festivals Caméra dOr for best first film.
10. Bruno Dumont ran off the rails so long ago that I thought this theologically minded Bressonian brutalist would never return to the bizarre vérité mysticism of The Life of Jesus or LHumanité. Thus Hors Satan (imperfectly translated as Outside Satan) was a mild revelation. Two non-actors with a matching absence of affect and complementary hairstyleshis slicked back, hers spiked uptramp silently around the beautifully photographed dunes and marshes of northwest Normandy, engaging in strange rituals and precipitating peculiar outbreaks (including one of Dumonts trademark sex acts). Its a Stone Age tale, ascetic, enigmatic, and intermittently violent.
Also noted with pleasure: Markus Schleizners audience mind-fuck Michael, Michel Hazanaviciuss silent-movie pastiche The Artist, Nicolas Winding Refns spaghetti-HK-80s mash-up Drive, Hong Sang-soos The Day He Arrives (not just the same movie he always makes, but a movie about making that same movie), Takashi Miikes well-conceptualized but poorly realized (or projected) 3-D samurai flick Ichimei, and Sean Durkins spooky Manson family gloss Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like I said, it was an excellent festival.
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